Merry 11th Day of Christmas! Yes, even though December 26 brought an abrupt end to Christmas music on the radio stations and the stores quickly cleared away Christmas trees for Valentines hearts, it’s still Christmas for another two days.
So in celebration, I thought it would be fun to recall the Christmas story one last time. It’s a paraphrase. Now here’s the catch: read it carefully to see if anything strange catches your eye.
Once upon a time, there was a woman named Mary and her husband Joseph who were traveling to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. By that time Mary was very pregnant, so she made the long journey to Bethlehem on a donkey while Joseph walked them along.
Once they made it to the city of Bethlehem, they found the town extremely crowded from all the people trying to register. Then Mary began to go into labor. Desperately Joseph looked in every available inn, but no room was to be found. Finally an innkeeper let Joseph and Mary stay in his stable overnight.
It was a cold, wintery night on December 25 when Jesus was born. So Mary wrapped Jesus in a swaddling cloth and laid him in the warm straw of a manger. Thankfully the other animals in the stable granted them space and their own special provisions. Overhead, the Christmas star was shining brightly.
Out in the countryside, shepherds were guarding their sheep by night. Suddenly a great host of angels appeared to the shepherds and sang about the good news of Jesus’ birth. Excitedly they ran with their sheep to Bethlehem and found Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the stable.
Later that evening, three kings from the east arrived to visit the baby Jesus. They followed his natal star which shone right above the manger stall where Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the shepherds were. There they offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
At some point during the night a little drummer boy showed up to play his drum as a gift to the Christ child. Jesus opened his eyes and smiled at the boy.
Every year we see and hear the Christmas story told in songs, hymns, pageantry, paintings, and pictures. The question is, what is authentic and what is not? What comes from the Bible, specifically Matthew and Luke’s gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, and what is extra?
This Christmas I’ve been reminded how much tradition has modified the Christmas story beyond Matthew and Luke’s birth stories. These things have been so ingrained in our telling of the story that we hardly question their presence.
My Jewish older cousins of the faith have a word for all the extra stuff. They call it Midrash. Midrash is a collection of stories and interpretations from Judaism’s long oral history that seeks to fill in the gaps of the biblical story. The purpose is to create understanding, meaning and application of the scriptures.
For example, there is a famous Midrash from the Noah story. According to some Midrash the reason why the ark was enormous and took 52 years to build was so that the rest of humankind would look at it, ask Noah about its meaning, hear his preaching and repent of their sins. Of course, they were so sinful that they didn’t even bother to ask. That fascinating story is not in the Bible, but it provides some helpful inference and interpretation of the story’s meaning.
When it comes to the Christmas story, we don’t call the non-biblical modification to the story Midrash per se, but that’s exactly what it is. Here is some of the “midrash” from the Christmas storyline I put together:
- Mary riding to Bethlehem on a donkey– That’s a popular depiction in art and speaks to Mary’s pregnancy during the journey, but there’s no record in Luke’s gospel of Mary’s mode of transportation to Bethlehem
- The city of Bethlehem was overly crowded– Nothing is mentioned in the Bible about the population of Bethlehem. Things are presumed to be extra busy because of the census and Luke’s note that there’s “no room” for Mary and Joseph. Also, Bethlehem was no city or town. Historically, it was probably a village which Luke figuratively calls the “City of David”.
- The innkeeper (and his wife)– There was none. He and sometimes Mrs. Innkeeper seem to appear in virtually every Christmas pageant, but not in the Bible.
- Jesus was born in a stable– Again, no mention of that- only a manger. With the presence of a manger, we might infer a stable for livestock. But there’s also a tradition that the site for the manger was in a cave.
- Jesus was born on December 25– Though technically not “midrash”, Christmas Day on December 25 was probably set by 4th century Christians as a day to commemorate the birth of Christ. Many scholars agree that Christmas was set right around the winter solstice to compete with pagan rituals. But in reality, we really do not know what time of year Jesus was born, and the gospel accounts offer no clues. All of the winter references in Christmas carols are simply a cultural appropriation.
- Friendly animals– A beautiful Christmas tradition but not biblical.
- The Christmas star– Yes, in Matthew’s gospel there was a star that led the Magi to Jerusalem and eventually to Jesus in Bethlehem, but there’s no mention of it appearing on the date of his birth.
- Angels singing to the shepherds– In Luke’s gospel, an angel appears followed by a host of angels who said, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” There’s absolutely no mention of singing. Contrary to Charles Wesley’s “herald angels singing”, Luke mentions no angelic music to harken our attention. Still, given the hymn-like words of the angels, we have traditionally inferred that they were singing.
- Three Magi came to visit baby Jesus– This is probably the most elaborated upon story in the infancy narratives of Jesus. Matthew does not say how many Magi there were. Three is given as the traditional number because of the three gifts. However, in some ancient eastern Christian traditions, there were twelve Magi who represented the gentile (non-Jew) equivalent to the twelve tribes of Israel.
- They were kings– There’s no mention of them being kings. They were Magi- a kind of soothsayer. Many scholars think they were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia, but Matthew is silent on that detail, too. Chances are the king inference comes from Psalm 72:11, “May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.”
- The Magi were present at the place of Jesus’ birth– The magi wouldn’t show up until much later. This blurring of Matthew and Luke’s story comes from nativity scenes… and the opening scenes of Ben Hur. Matthew records that the Magi came to the house where the Holy Family was living in Bethlehem.
- The little drummer boy– A popular song from the 1940s, I’m always amazed at the number of nativity scenes with a drummer boy present!
Is all this Christmas “midrash” bad? Not at all. They’re not biblical, but they add an interpretive lens to round out the story into this rich tradition. And they reflect how Christians through the centuries have chosen to approach the birth of Jesus.
At the same time, we must make a conscious distinction between the Bible and extra-biblical traditions. Matthew and Luke have essential stories to tell that proclaim the meaning and significance of Jesus’ birth. They are very different stories which offer two different portraits of the nativity. Let’s get those stories right even while we enjoy the traditions that have developed through the centuries to honor the birth of our Lord and Savior.